Tween

Spooky, Semi-Scary Books for Middle Grade Readers

by Tom Burns

As a parent, it can be hard to quantify “scary.” One day, your child is begging you to stop reading The Berenstain Bears in the Dark, and the next, they’re asking you if they’re old enough to watch “The Walking Dead.” Scary gets particularly hard to define in middle school, when kids are perched on that narrow threshold between innocent youth and teenaged indifference.

Is there an appropriate level of scary for middle school? As always, it varies from kid to kid, but there are some writers who seem to have truly tapped into what makes a middle-schooler squirm. Case in point: R.L. Stine, the massively popular creator of the Goosebumps series.

If your middle schooler is ready for for something a little scarier than Room on the Broom, try these spooky titles that should definitely creep them out, but shouldn’t keep them up all night.

  • The Halloween Tree

    by Ray Bradbury, illustrated by Joseph Mugnaini

    This might be the greatest Halloween book ever written. One of the few children’s books written by Bradbury, Halloween Tree tells the stories of eight young boys who venture out trick-or-treating, but soon find themselves confronted by the foreboding Mr. Moundshroud, who, through his evil machinations, introduces the children to Halloween traditions from around the world. If your kid really likes to be unnerved, this would make a fantastic double feature with Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.

  • Classic Goosebumps: Night of the Living Dummy or The Haunted Mask

    by R.L. Stine

    Goosebumps is the ideal gateway series to introduce your middle grade reader to the mechanics of the classic “scary story.” The plots are short, the scares are more “Twilight Zone” than “Friday the 13th,” and Stine really knows how to write for children, particularly how to press their buttons. Stine has written over 60 Goosebumps books, so if you’re looking for a good place to start, why not begin with some of the longtime series favorites like Night of the Living Dummy or The Haunted Mask?

  • Monstrous Devices

    by Damien Love

    In this atmospheric, spooky fantasy story, 12-year-old robot-enthusiast Alex is given an antique robot by his grandfather with a simple note: “This one is special.” With that gift, an unexpected chain of events is set in motion and Alex finds himself on an action-packed adventure across Europe with his grandfather, keeping the robot safe, dodging dangerous characters, and dabbling in powerful magic.

  • Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites

    by Evan Dorkin, illustrated by Jill Thompson

    This graphic novel has a fantastic premise: What if all the pets in your neighborhood spent their nights keeping you safe from supernatural phenomenon? In the bucolic Burden Hill, a ragtag council of dogs, known as the Wise Dog Society, and their one cat ally reluctantly investigate haunted doghouses, demon rats, pet cemetery poltergeists — you name it. Dorkin and Thompson deserve considerable credit for giving the mysteries such emotional weight and for making their animal protagonists feel so genuinely animal. A potent blend of funny, moving, and scary.

  • Nightmares! Series

    by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller, illustrated by Karl Kwasny

    Charlie’s nightmares begin after he moves into his new stepmom’s old, creepy house with his dad and little brother, Jack. He tries to avoid sleeping to avoid the nightmares, but, eventually, his eyes close and he drifts into terrible dreams. The nightmares come to life when Jack is kidnapped, and Charlie finds himself on a terrifying mission that takes him into the dream world to save his brother. And so begins this delightful, spooky, oftentimes hilarious series written by actor Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller, with super cool illustrations by Karl Kwasny.

  • Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy

    by Karen Foxlee

    A very logical and inquisitive girl, Ophelia doesn’t believe in things that can’t be proven by science. But there are a lot of things she can’t explain about the museum her father works in … like the boy with no name she finds held captive within its walls. Putting her doubts aside, Ophelia decides to help the boy stop the evil Snow Queen who imprisoned him from destroying the world. Reminiscent of “The Snow Queen” fairy tale, this action-packed and suspenseful story is chilling in more ways than one.

  • Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase

    by Jonathan Stroud

    In The Screaming Staircase, Stroud, the creator of the popular Bartimaeus series, introduces us to a London besieged by ghosts and hauntings. However, the only people who can actually see the dangerous spirits are children, so paranormal investigation agencies employ young teens and tweens as their primary ghostbusters. Stroud’s tale follows the only all-kid agency in London — Lockwood & Co. — as they struggle to prove themselves to their peers by tackling the most haunted house in all of England. Brilliant world-building and characterizations make this series a must-read for macabre middle schoolers.

  • The House with a Clock in Its Walls

    by John Bellairs, illustrated by Edward Gorey

    Ten-year-old Lewis Barnavelt is an orphan, and he has no idea what’s in store when he’s sent to live with his eccentric uncle in Michigan. Luckily, Uncle Jonathan — and his charming neighbor, Mrs. Zimmerman — welcome Lewis into their lives, which, as it turns out, includes more than a little bit of magic. With a mystery-driven plot, illustrations by Edward Gorey, and the quintessential battle between good and evil, this classic story proves its staying power.

  • The Thief of Always

    by Clive Barker

    While it might seem odd to direct your child to a book written by the creator of “Hellraiser,” this short creepy fable is perfect for young readers looking to escape the doldrums of their everyday lives. Ten-year-old Harvey is bored by everything until a man with an unnerving smile, named Rictus, offers to take him to Holiday House, a place where children’s wishes come true (kind of like Pinocchio’s Paradise Island). Unfortunately, there’s a dark side to Holiday House and getting home might be much, much harder than Harvey ever imagined. Makes a great companion piece to the similarly themed Coraline by Neil Gaiman.

  • Small Spaces

    by Katherine Arden

    Kids who are fans of “Stranger Things” can enjoy the same creep factor in this eerie middle grade read. For 11-year-old Ollie, books are an escape and her latest read is quite chilling. Then on a field trip, she notices some strange similarities between the farm they’re visiting and the book, including the gravestones of the very characters she has read about. With spooky scarecrows and haunted woods, Ollie’s favorite form of escape is about to become a real-life nightmare.

What other spooky, but not too scary, reads would you recommend for tweens?

 

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in 2015 and updated in 2018.

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